Saturday, September 1, 2012

‘Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? Fiendish puzzles and impossible interview questions from the world’s top companies’ By William Poundstone

Fermi question

"Blame the extraterrestrials for this style of interviewing. In 1950 the subject of flying saucers came up one day around lunchtime at Los Alamos.'

"'Edward, what do you think?' the physicist Enrico Fermi asked his tablemate Edward Teller. Was it possible that extraterrestrials were visiting the earth in spaceships? Teller judged it highly unlikely. Fermi was no so sure. He spent much of his lunch calculating how many extraterrestrial civilisations there were in the universe and how close the nearest one would be.'

"This was the classic 'Fermi question.' Back at the University of Chicago, Fermi tormented his students with only somewhat easier questions. His most famous classroom riddle was, 'How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?' Fermi staunchly believed that anyone with a PhD in physics should be able to estimate just about anything. Somewhere along the line the 'PhD in physics' part got dropped.'

"Today's employers have gotten the idea that everyone, including humanities graduates, should be able to estimate odd quantities on a job interview. (No one is expected to estimate weird things after they're hired.) These questions are today's riddle of the sphinx. They often determine who gets to pass from phone interview to the corporate campus. Some are loosely related to the company's line of business:'

"How many petrol stations are there in the United States? (asked at General Motors)'

"But more often, there's no discernible connection:'

"How many rubbish collectors are there in California? (Apple)'

"Estimate the number of taxis in New York City. (KPMG)'

"How many golf balls would fit in a stadium? (JP Morgan Chase)'

"Estimate the costs of producing a bottle of Gatorade (a US sports drink). (Johnson and Johnson)'

"How many vacuum cleaners are made a year? (Google)'

"An advantage of Fermi questions – for employers – is that it's easy to invent new ones. Thus the candidate can be presented with a fresh question that's never been in a book or on the web."

(pp. 108-9, 'Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? Fiendish puzzles and impossible interview questions from the world's top companies' By William Poundstone - Landmark)

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